Environmental DNA as a Tool for Inventory and Monitoring of Aquatic Vertebrates

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ESTCP 2017 Project-of-the-Year Award for Resource Conservation and Resiliency

Detection of amphibian and fish species using conventional survey methods is not always possible. At least 22 at-risk amphibian species and over 40 at-risk fish species are known to occur on DoD lands. For elusive species, such as many amphibians and fishes, lack of reliable monitoring data can lead to an underestimate of the species’ distribution. An efficient alternative to traditional field surveys is the use of environmental DNA (eDNA) to detect species presence.  Animals shed cells with their DNA into the environment regularly (through the shedding of skin, mucous, and excrement). By sampling this shed DNA, researchers can infer a species’ presence in the sampled environment using existing genetic methods.

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Dr. Alexander Fremier, Dr. Caren Goldberg, and their from Washington State University led an ESTCP funded project that demonstrated the effectiveness of environmental DNA techniques for monitoring sensitive aquatic vertebrate species and their invasive threats at three Department of Defense (DoD) installations. The team developed and validated eDNA sampling protocols for a variety of aquatic species, including frogs, salamanders, fish, and disease-causing pathogens. In addition, the eDNA protocol results were compared to traditional field sampling with respect to sensitivity, detection probabilities, and cost efficiency.

This demonstration showed that eDNA can be a sensitive and cost-effective technology for monitoring aquatic species under a range of conditions that included factors expected to limit eDNA detection (e.g., low pH). Techniques used during this demonstration are helping inform ongoing natural resource management activities, including (1) development of species-specific endangered species management plans, (2) Section 7 consultations with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and (3) early detection and control of invasive aquatic species that may prey on or hybridize with native species.

For this significant work, Dr. Fremier, Dr. Goldberg, and their team received the 2017 ESTCP Project-of-the-Year Award for Resource Conservation and Resiliency for their project titled Environmental DNA as a Tool for Inventory and Monitoring of Aquatic Vertebrates.

Project Team

  • Dr. Alexander Fremier, Washington State University
  • Dr. Caren Goldberg, Washington State University
  • Dr. Katherine Strickler, Washington State University
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Photo by Trish Gottesman

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